Monday, September 11, 2006

On that day...

I must confess something. Five years have passed, and I haven't written a single thing about Sept. 11, 2001 since right after it happened.
Others have written volumes of poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction about what happened on that day, trying to digest it, trying to mold it all into some form they could get their minds around.
I haven't. I didn't think I could do it justice.
The scope, the magnitude, the fallout. It was all so beyond the scope of me. I could parrot back the feelings of sorrow, the horror, the grief, the overwhelming sense of confusion-slash-dread-slash-anger everyone else was feeling.
But I couldn't do it. I couldn't take this enormous event and synthesize it into a literary form. The notion of it was exhausting just to think about. Living through it was exhausting enough.
I can excuse the 22-year-old version of myself for feeling that way. I was a college student, I was beginning a breakneck-pace semester at Bowling Green featuring 18 credit hours of classes and the sports editorship of the student newspaper. I was taking on more than I realistically could handle to begin with, and trying to delve into the dark, frightening underbelly of that day was too much.
But now, five years later, long since graduated and into the world of work, I think it's time for the 27-year-old me to look back at what the 22-year-old me was feeling, sitting in a college apartment 500 miles away from places where the world was being violently reshaped, and our sense of what it means to be American was being redefined.

It was clear that day. That's the first thing I remember. How blue the sky was, how bright the morning Sun, how warm it felt as it climbed in the eastern sky. And how still the air was. Barely a breeze.
My roommate Casper, who is now in the Army ironically, had gotten up before me and was watching the news on the TV in his room. I woke up around 9:15 and trudged into the living room. I was tired and I had class in a little more than two hours, so I was probably a little cranky.
Casper came into the living room as I deliberated over what I wanted for breakfast.
"You have to turn on the TV," he said. "The World Trade Center is on fire."
I came back to his room and watched for a few minutes on his TV. My first impression was probably the impression a lot of people had: "Who was the moron who did this, and how drunk was he?"
An accident. Surely. Both towers were burning, so I figured a plane had slammed into one tower an debris had ricocheted away and hit the other tower.
I remember reading about a large plane that had slammed into the Empire State Building in 1945. But that was in a thick fog. I failed to see the flaw in my comparison until later.
My second impression: How on Earth are they going to put out fires that high up? Obviously no ladder truck can get that high, and certainly no water cannon can project nearly a quarter-mile straight up.
I wasn't yet thinking of the people trapped above the impact zones of both towers. I certainly wasn't yet thinking terrorist act.
That changed as soon as I retreated to the living room and saw footage of Flight 175 tear a fiery gash into the side of 2 World Trade Center. Then I heard the voice on the news. Two planes, two buildings, clear day. This was intentional.
The gravity of the situation took hold, but the full scope of America being under attack didn't hit me just then.
About 20 minutes passed. My other roommates started to get up and were quickly briefed by Casper and I.
Then we were hit with another bullet of grainy, raw news footage and stammering anchor voices. The Pentagon.
They couldn't be sure, but ... the Pentagon ... there had been an explosion of some sort at the Pentagon.
In an instant, the terror took hold. This wasn't an accident. This wasn't a single attack on a single site. The East Coast of the United States was under attack. What else was going to fall? Where was this going? Chicago? Washington? Los Angeles?
The grainy news footage kept pouring in. Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Later, I would find out that the hijackers might have used a visual cue in Lorain County to swing the aircraft back toward Washington D.C. It apparently was supposed to hit the White House or Capitol. But the passengers fought back and the jumbo jet crashed less than 200 miles from its intended target.
The disjointed commentary and speculation was interrupted twice to watch the south World Trade Center tower collapse, and shortly thereafter, the north.
The first plane hit 1 World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., the first event in the timeline of destruction. The same building collapsed at 10:28 a.m., bringing the destruction to an end.
In the span of 102 minutes, the entire world was turned upside down. And in a college apartment in Bowling Green, Ohio, me and four roommates were wondering what to do with ourselves.
The stark reality hit me, for the first time in my life. The safe cocoon had been stripped away, which might have been one of the terrorists' intentions.
It's not just that we were capable of being attacked in America. Long ago we should have abandoned the notion that two oceans were enough to protect us in an era of worldwide plane travel.
It was fears far more basic that were laid bare: There were people out there that want to kill me because I am an American. Not because of who I am or what I do, but because of what I represent. They don't care to know my name, they don't care what I do in this world, good or bad. They want me dead because I am an American. They would kill all 270-odd million of us if they could.
At first, It scared me. As the months passed, I realized it is part of the human condition. For as long as there have been human beings, there have been human beings killing other human beings because they feared them, or loathed them, or felt them a threat.
And it will keep happening, as long as there are human beings. The world is just twisted like that.
I try not to dwell on that too much. It's too depressing. That's another reason why I've hardly written about Sept. 11.
But I can't just ignore it. I have to acknowledge it in some meaningful way. And that's why I'm writing this. The fear, anger and confusion born that day won't ever totally subside. Terrorist groups will try to get us, and we'll try to get them. Along the way, many more people are going to die.
Civilization is a thin veneer. Kindness is a personal act. On a large scale, when you don't have to look someone in the face and wonder what they're thinking, humans are far more savage to each other.
Father, Allah, Yahweh. No matter what you call Him, God has to look down on us with great pity sometimes.

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